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Shame on Arkansas 

Shame on Arkansas lawmakers for their failure to protect schoolchildren from assault and battery by educators.

Arkansas is one of 21 states that still permit corporal punishment in schools. It is a symptom of a punitive and diseased school culture.

When beating children is OK, other abusive practices are swept along with it. We need to establish a high standard for teacher conduct. We can no longer assume that everyone with the title “teacher” has only the best interests of the child at heart. We can no longer allow schools to set their own standards willy-nilly for the safety of children.

Indeed, there are always teachers who are dedicated professionals and who adhere to the highest standards. But laws are needed to rein in the others: those who slip into abusive behavior when given the opportunity, who shake, shove, and grab children, who deny their use of the bathroom, who force them to run laps and do push-ups as punishment, and who whack them on the buttocks with a flat board. That's why civilized society has laws. That's why responsible lawmakers strive to draw a sharp line between what's OK and what's not OK.

Children should not come to school feeling afraid of teachers. They should not be required to spend the school day in a toxic, punitive environment. School should be a place that welcomes children and makes them feel safe. It should not use a fear-based management style that only motivates children to escape at the earliest opportunity. Is anybody surprised that schools with the highest rates of corporal punishment also have the highest drop-out rates?

In states and school districts where corporal punishment is banned, educators can focus on positive behavioral support and cooperative rather than reactive management techniques. Adults set the tone for problem solving. They model self-discipline. Given better examples, children perform better and behave better.

Shirley Elementary, recently in the news in the Arkansas Times for punishing children by making them run up and down stairs to the point of exhaustion, exemplifies all that is wrong with corporal punishment. Forced exercise is corporal punishment. Its sole purpose is to cause pain. Attempts by the school administration to excuse this punishment by equating it with athletic training are not persuasive. It has nothing to do with fitness or health. If anything, such mistreatment of children is apt to have a dampening effect on their eventual interest in healthy exercise because of its negative associations.

Another punishment at Shirley Elementary is requiring children to clean bathroom floors while under the supervision of custodians. Here again, we see a flagrant disregard for safety.

Shirley Elementary is a perfect example of a troubled school in a state of drift. And there are many others like it. How does one begin to fix the problem? A first and essential step, it seems to me, is to establish a school environment that attracts the best people and favors the best practices. To do that, we must first close the legal loophole that permits assault and battery of schoolchildren. Lawmakers should be standing in line to sponsor such a bill.

Jordan Riak of Alamo, Calif., is the executive director of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (see www.nospank.net). Max Brantley is on vacation.

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